Review: 'Share'

Wednesday, July 31, 2019
A still from 'Share'.

Virtual Hell

2019 / USA / 87 min. / Dir. by Pippa Bianco / Premiered online on July 27, 2019

by:
Andrew Wyatt

The opening images and sounds in Share, writer-director Pippa Bianco’s icily intense debut feature, are impressionistic but easily identifiable: rain-slicked asphalt captured in fuzzy close-up, the dark surface occasionally flaring orange-white from the headlights of passing cars. These are the sensations that greet 16-year-old Mandy (Rhianne Barreto) as she awakens, groggy and bewildered, on her parents’ front lawn in the early-morning hours. It’s an out-of-the-gate indication of the film’s harrowing, subjective viewpoint, one tightly bound to the way that Mandy perceives her suburban environment and the events that follow from this inauspicious stirring. The film’s gaze (and therefore Mandy’s) will return over and over to this otherwise unremarkable patch of grass, as if it holds some clue to understanding the hellish ordeal that unfolds in the ensuing weeks and months. No such luck: Bianco’s film is short on answers, although there is a kind of cold comfort in its raw, keen-eyed depiction of an adolescent girl’s experiences in the brave new (yet same-as-it-ever-was) world of the 2010s.

Mandy’s subsequent self-examination reveals bruises and abrasions on her body and, it is discreetly implied, more direct evidence of a sexual encounter. Shoving the sour dread of these discoveries into the back of her mind, she busies herself with the banalities of the following school day, which include basketball practice, hanging out with her friends, and dinner with her parents and little brother. Later that evening, however, the digital evidence of Mandy’s long, dark night abruptly surfaces. A flurry of alarmed but cryptic text messages from her friends – have u seen it? is it u? r u ok? – heralds the arrival of the video that will reverberate through Mandy’s family, school, and community. In the clip, she sees herself, facedown and unconscious on the floor of a friend’s bathroom, as several drunken male classmates mock and grope her. The blurry snippet of footage is blessedly short, but Mandy is no fool, and she draws the obvious conclusion about the events that followed.

Expanding on her 2015 short film of the same name, it would have been quite easy for Bianco to use this setup as the basis for a twisty SVU-style thriller about consent, assault, and victim-blaming in the digital age – or, more clinically, an Errol Morris-indebted inquiry into the epistemological limitations of the videographic frame. However, Share’s ambitions are both narrower and more unsettling than these. With nauseating clarity, Bianco conveys the experience of being an adolescent victim in an era in which digital evidence is easily disseminated via social media, and everybody and their uncle feels obliged to proffer their unsolicited opinion about each and every viral blip. Before long, Mandy’s parents, Kerri (Poorna Jagannathan) and Mickey (J.C. MacKenzie), stumble onto the humiliating video, and at their urging Mandy reluctantly presses criminal charges against A.J. (Nicholas Galitzine), the solitary boy that she can identify from the video. The scandal thereafter breaks wide open, turning Mandy’s life into an unremitting nightmare of sickening shame, social ostracism, and violent threats.

It’s exactly the sort of story that’s normally employed as the basis for tedious Luddite hand-wringing about These Kids Today. Bianco’s film disdains such alarmism, taking a hard left in the other direction, asserting that the ubiquity of smartphones hasn’t fundamentally altered the bedrock fact that women are routinely assailed, ridiculed, and doubted in a male-dominated society. The relentless liking and sharing of our experiences has just warped and heightened the same repulsive public farce that’s been playing out since the days of the Puritans (and beyond). Granted, the existence of video evidence turns what would have been a mere hallway rumor a couple of decades ago into a full-blown criminal investigation, but that same footage is also weaponized to attack Mandy, sending her into a downward spiral of anxiety, depression, and numb indifference. The insistent ding of the girl’s incoming texts becomes the soundtrack of her damnation – a never-ending barrage of anonymous, threatening vitriol that she can’t even be bothered to block.

That said, the digital dimension to Share’s plot is less central than the film’s title might suggest. Bianco refrains from the usual animated bric-a-brac that characterizes films about How We Live Now. Rather than revealing Mandy’s messages and videos with flashy on-screen pop-ups, the film peers over her shoulder in claustrophobic handheld shots. Bianco doggedly tethers her camera to the personalized, despairing perspective of her protagonist, who purposefully walls herself off from both new and old media out a combination of assiduous self-care and sheer mortification. Flashes of sensational local news reports on Mandy’s case appear at the margins of the film, but they are like a grotesque carnival half-glimpsed through an open tent flap – invariably sending the poor girl scurrying out of the room or fumbling for the remote.

The horror of Share is the horror of knowing with stomach-turning certainty exactly what’s being whispered behind one's back, messaged invisibly through the ether, and screeched in the Facebook comments that one should never (ever) read. It’s similar to the helpless, infuriating paranoia expressed by whistleblowing scientist Jeffrey Wigand in Michael Mann’s The Insider (1999), as he peers impotently at his ex-employer’s office from his hotel window: “I’m staring at the Brown & Williamson building. It’s all dark except for the 10th floor. That’s the legal department. That’s where they fuck with my life!” Perhaps coincidentally, the hazy, chilly aesthetic marshalled by Bianco seem to exhibit some inspiration from Mann’s dark urban odysseys, especially his mostly digital 21st-century features (Collateral, Miami Vice, Blackhat). However, it’s the youth-centered works of Eliza Hittman (It Felt Like Love, Beach Rats) and Tim Sutton (Pavilion, Dark Night) – with their oneiric visuals and clenched adolescent emotions – that feel like the closest kin to Share. Much like Hittman, Bianco is acutely attuned to the simple, grinding, plain-as-day angst of being a hapless teenager.

There’s a lacerating bleakness that suffuses Share – a sense of small-bore, domestic doom where it seems as if things can only get worse for Mandy and her family – that could have easily devolved into pointless miserabilism. Bianco evades this partly through the film’s dreamy style, which is less about establishing you-are-there immediacy than conveying the feeling of being an adolescent girl who is being psychologically squeezed from all directions. Just as vital, however, is the shrewdness and litheness of the film’s screenplay, which never resorts to telling what Bianco’s compositions and her performers’ faces can show much more gracefully. When Mandy spies bestie Jenna (Lovie Simone) and nice-guy friend Dylan (Charlie Plummer) at the 7-11, and then sees that they are still palling around with her assailant as if nothing were amiss, her betrayal is not registered through histrionics. Rather, it’s discernable in the crushed and appalled look that flickers across Barreto’s face before she arranges her features into feigned adolescent insouciance.

As quietly expressive as the film’s performances can be, however, Share’s secret weapon is Bianco’s talent for visually and aurally conveying her protagonist’s alternating bouts of anguished hyper-vigilance and narcotic despair. When Mandy’s class is assigned to watch a film, Bianco’s camera disregards the illuminated screen and instead follow’s the girl’s gaze as it bores into the back of A.J.’s head. As Mandy enters the locker room for basketball practice, a flurry of shots mirror the way she anxiously searches her teammates’ faces for sneering judgment (or condescending pity). At the macro level, Bianco often employs jarring editing and sound design to transition abruptly from scene to scene, generating a fumbling momentum that suggests how Mandy’s days and weeks have begun to smear together into a wretchedly inert purgatory.

These formal choices on the part of the filmmaker are consistently guided by a cutting feminist outlook that is less incensed than grimly fatalistic. Bianco isn’t aiming to persuade but to cultivate awareness and empathy for the miserable banality of Mandy’s plight. If Share feels thematically slight – “It sure does suck to be a teenage girl” is about the extent of its argument – it admirably couches this self-evident truth in a vivid cinematic vocabulary that feels leagues from the usual after-school sophistry. There’s a lyrical yet exhausted quality to Share’s social observations that gives them authentic weight. In a key exchange between Mandy and her mother, Kerri explains that the scandal has been hard on the girl’s father because, being a man, he never suspected that the world was so secretly depraved and hideously unjust. “I know things like this happen to someone, every minute of every day,” Kerri explains to her daughter wearily but kindly. “But he didn’t know that, because he didn’t have to.”

Rating: B

Share is now available to stream from HBO Now.